What Semenya’s Critics AND Defenders Fear

August 27, 2009

Reading David Zirin and Sherry Wolf’s piece, Sex-Testing Victim Semenya Stands Tall, originally published by The Nation, and a somewhat different version in The Globe and Mail, it was reading the latter that something quite fundamental, and quite invisible, struck me.

While it is clear what is illuminated here, particularly in the hurtful comments by those Semenya defeated–and part of a long, if not venerable history in women’s sport–ascribing her success to maleness, is a truth not many, for all the commentary, acknowledge.

The history of female athletes of superlative performance has long been one of their adopting feminine gender expression–and emphatically so–not only to offset their physical male characteristics, musculature, lack of breasts, endurance, deep voice, not usually associated with a female body but also to deflect the slur of homosexuality–and the consequence of sex-testing, which indignity Semenya is now undergoing.

This strength of this accusation, not only in sports, does not simply derive from the irrational fear of those who have sex with those whose sex is the same as theirs.

Do we actually see the persons so attacked in intimate moments with those of the same sex?

I suspect I must actually answer this, to me, rhetorical question. This is because the near universal answer to the hate attracted by people like Semenya is that, of course, it is their sexual orientation that is the cause–and no evidence for this is needed.

But, no, we do not see these targets of hate having sex with anyone.

What, then, do we actually see?

We see people who present the physical characteristics of the opposite sex–specifically, male characteristics. And it is these characteristics that, it is assumed, must be the reason for her success. Since it could not possibly be her dedication, her talent or her training.

It is a surprisingly abstract process that jumps from the perception of seen physical characteristics to unseen sexual behaviour–and it is a common one.

It is even more surprising, and to me very curious, that gay and lesbian people, almost universally–and uncritically–promote this complicated intellectualleap.

Clarity of thought is not something usually associated with hate; but I would have hoped it might come from other quarters.

I repeat, what is it that we actually see?

What is it we are actually judging?

We see, and judge, male characteristics in one who presents as female.

We witness as Zirin and Wolf describe, the conclusion of Semenya’s critics that she has illicitly benefited from male characteristics–as if she has taken performance-enhancing drugs/steroids.

As Zirin and Wolf declare:

A country’s wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could.

Both Semenya’s critics and defenders see sexual orientation as the essence of this issue. Well, not see, I suppose, but feel.

Such a curious consensus and agreement among the most unlikely partners, one might even say allies.

What struck me in all of this–and leads me to dare this statement–is precisely what Zirin and Wolf emphatically point to:

the underlying societal  assumption that it is better to be male.

So fundamental is this assumption it cannot even be seen, so normalized is it in society. It is so invisible that even Semenya’s defenders must conjure up an abstract logic to explain what is happening.

Because they, themselves, share this assumption.

This assumption is the flip side of the attacks, not limited by sexual orientation, political philosophy, religious belief or adherence to feminism, on those who seek to abandon apparent maleness.

This, too, is met with the slur of homosexuality.

While there are certainly those who say these fundamental physical characteristics are gender and gender variant presentation is itself part of  “all things associated” with homosexuality, I cannot accept these assertions.

When, for example, we learn that Semenya wore pants when we was young, this, certainly, is part of gender expression. And we can also say that the response to her physical presence is gendered in some way. But my somewhat attenuated hope is that, in the way we approach freedom, equality and dignity, we would seek clarity in what we assert.

Frankly, all I see in most of this controversy is confusion.

Am I saying Semenya is transsexual? Of course not.

Am I saying she is intersexed? I’m sure after all the sex-testing ordeal she is enduring, we may well learn this.

What I am saying is Semenya’s ordeal demonstrates prejudice that is not limited to those who criticize her performance, and that this points to a very fundamental anxiety shared by people regardless of sexual orientation.

Not only does this have to do with those who change their physical sex characteristics, or simply present opposite-sex physical characteristics, but in particular this anxiety is heightened when it has to do with those who appear to abandon maleness as well as those who seem to inappropriately benefit from maleness.

There is a lesson here I suspect will be lost on most.

Tools for the Struggle

August 27, 2009


This a bit of an experiment. Though I have not been posting to this blog for some time–issues around available time, particularly in relation to keeping up full time work, and my penchant for doing rather involved pieces that have much thinking and drafting to do.

I have, nevertheless, been posting comments to various lists and sites over the months, finding the motivation of responding to be very helpful in getting something worthwhile, I believe, out.

This is one such response to this.

There were no other comments. I debated whether to post this because after an interesting and necessary discussion to a previous post, there was silence. There remains silence.

This is an ominous sign.

Over the years, I have read with interest, great respect and admiration the work of catkisser whose contribution includes not only this blog, but others and a body of advocacy I can never hope to emulate.

I regret from this point our paths diverge.

To abandon the tools of privilege and power relations analyses is to voluntarily give up what is most effective in the struggle for empowerment.

The need for one to “own one’s womanhood,” to posses one’s self-esteem, are certainly foundational pre-requisites for ANY struggle, including the struggle for equality–which remains a struggle.

The vision of anarchism in the Spanish Civil War was not limited to women, but was one shared by all those, Spanish and not Spanish alike, who answered the call–forever changing them.

The challenges faced by those men and women were different at least in degree from those we face today–I would even argue the degree of difference we face today passes the threshold to difference in kind.

The most visible collective of women in Canada, with a long and respected, by some, history of working for the benefit of women, is the group that founded Rape Relief and the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective and Pharmacy, called Lu’s, which have SUCCESSFULLY excluded those women not born women–those of use who DO NOT BLEED.

I have myself been attacked by those who wield “horizontal” beliefs–white, middle-class, gay men who argue there is no difference between either our status or struggles.

This, when gay and lesbian people have have had explicit human rights in Canada for more than a decade, hate crime protections for almost that long, and same-sex marriage–called in Canada “equal marriage”–for more than 5 years in most parts of my country and everywhere since.

And MANY other administrative law and collective agreement benefits.

There is no explicit human rights protection in Canada–except North West Territories–for transgender or transsexual people, no hate crime protection, nor FORMAL equality anywhere.

There is a Rainbow Health Ontario agency that seeks to improve health care in Ontario for ALL of us whose adherence to the social
determinants of health does not move them even to acknowledge that this FORMAL exclusion from society has any effect on transgender and particularly transsexual people.

Once, this very much upset me on a deeply personal level until I worked out my own grief and despair, finding my own healing path,
taking ownership of my womanhood and finding my self-esteem.

While my transition has completed, I continue on my healing path.

The tools you declare should be abandoned are those I see put to good use, by the women I admire, in the empowerment of those oppressed by the primary structures of oppression–race, age, gender/sex, sexual orientation, class, etc–and all their intersections in the lived lives of all of us.

Without these tools, there is no way to answer the charge that there is no difference between the struggles of those excluded from the mainstream of society and those closer, nor able to gauge this exclusion and what maintains this–the simple exercise of raw power.

And more importantly, to challenge it.

The time has long since past when we can withdraw into our communes and communities and celebrate the Goddess in each other and ourselves to the exclusion of this struggle–balanced with what we need to keep ourselves healthy in the world, which DOES include celebration and mutual recognition.

The Spanish Civil War, among its MANY lessons, gave us this very painful and very bitter one.

Regardless of my own yearnings for the glory of the past–and my grief for being forever excluded from it–there is nothing I can do to resurrect what WAS right and good.

All I can do–merely contribute, really–is to build for the future with all the tools I can muster in the face of the ever-perfecting
machine, maintaining my balance along the way as best I can.

It saddens me more than I can express that the two of you, whom I admire for what you have endured and accomplished, call on us to abandon the very essence of the consciousness and empowerment that it is to be a woman.

UPDATE: When I wrote about silence, it was not in reference to the posts, but to the absence of comments to them.

The comment refers to a discussion in response to my comment.

I do not see a discussion, of the sort that was in response to this post. I just wonder where the discussion in comments is to the more recent posts.

UPDATE II: Another comment to the original post.

I believe the starting point of feminism–well, maybe second wave feminism–in North America–one in which few “women” actually had a part in–were the ‘bitching’ or consciousness-raising sessions.

Out of these came the awareness of power-relationships on the one hand and privilege–male privilege–on the other.

Cultural differences are the inevitable result of, well, different cultures.

One of the goals of social work is to work at cultural competency–not always succeeded or even understood. Feminism is very much a part of the practice and theory of social work.

But my point, which I don’t believe you have addressed, is that out of one’s taking ownership of being a woman and coming to one’s self-esteem–a difficult process given the oppressed state of being a woman, and yes, being a woman of transsexual history–comes empowerment.

This empowerment is entangled with understanding privilege and power relations.

This is the gift of feminism to all those who struggle against oppression. What has been absorbed into what is called anti-oppression practice and theory.

Feminists work in all parts of the “woman’s movement,” including those we both have challenged. These women do the Goddess’s work in their lives and in living their lives.

What they–we–do with our lives after taking possession of our empowerment is not for another to say.

This just gets us back to where we started.